Let’s get things straight – The Great Wall, purportedly China’s most expensive film to date that was shot entirely in the country and featuring one of the world’s most iconic landmarks, is not a Chinese movie.
Well, not initially anyway.
The basic idea of The Great Wall was concocted by Thomas Tull, the CEO of Hollywood film production company Legendary, who then developed the story with Max Brooks, the writer of Brad Pitt’s zombie film World War Z. From there, a screenplay was written by writing duo Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, as well as Tony Gilroy.
It took seven years for the project to really take off, though, after China’s most revered filmmaker Zhang Yimou came on board to direct it.
Enter the Chinese connection.
It is also important to note that Legendary Entertainment was bought over by one of China’s biggest companies – Dalian Wanda Group – in January 2016, thus making the film a Chinese production. But Zhang would prefer to think of it as a Hollywood film with a Zhang Yimou touch.
“The American team (producers and scriptwriters) was worried about showing me the story at first because they thought it would be too much of a ‘Hollywood monster-type’ story for me. But then I saw that there were Chinese elements in the plotline and that the story was meaningful and original.
“I discussed with the American team and said, let’s do this. Let’s make this a Hollywood blockbuster plus a Zhang Yimou movie,” said the director in an interview in Beijing, China, recently.
The Great Wall tells the tale of a mercenary named William Garin and his companion Pero Tovar, who get caught in a war between a team of China’s elite military warriors called The Nameless Order and monsters.
These monsters, called “taotie”, are mythical creatures that attack the Wall and its people every 60 years for eight terrifying days in a row. In Chinese mythology, the taotie are greedy beasts who would eat anything they come across, even to the point of eating their own bodies! They are then used as a symbol of greed and gluttony.
In the film, the taotie attack the Wall as punishment for the humans who have become too greedy with power, money and everything else.
The Nameless Order is made up of warriors who have been trained for years to fight the taotie and protect the country and its Emperor. While preparing for an imminent attack, warriors capture Garin and Tovar, who were trying to infiltrate the Wall to search for (and steal) a rumoured new deadly weapon.
From there, things get sticky for the duo as they are forced to participate in the war.
The Great Wall stars Oscar winner Matt Damon as Garin, with Narcos star Pedro Pascal as his sidekick Tovar. Willem Dafoe is the other Hollywood guy featured in the movie, playing a dodgy character who’s always in the shadows.
Hong Kong star Andy Lau plays a respected scientist and scholar named Wang who believes that Garin might hold the key to defeat the taotie, while Chinese actress Jing Tian portrays the strong-willed and skillful commander Lin Mae.
Both these characters are able to speak English, becoming the communicator for the two captured foreigners.
“I really wish people would watch the film first before forming an opinion of it,” Damon, 46, told Star2.com exclusively.
The actor was replying to accusations of “Hollywood whitewashing” occuring in the film, in which a Westerner is portrayed as being the saviour of a place, a country or people.
He thinks the allegations are baseless. “Yes, there are foreigners in the movie who seem to save the day for China, but there is a lot more to the story and character than that. Besides, it is a very common plotline,” Damon said, citing James Cameron’s Avatar as an example of a “foreigner” who helps out folks on a different land.
Damon goes on to say that the whitewashing accusations mostly come from Western viewers and critics.
“Nobody has seen the film (at the time of this interview), yet everyone already has a million things to say about it.
“Poor Zhang Yimou didn’t even know what all the fiasco was about, and even after explaining it to him he still didn’t get it. He just cannot grasp the idea of people getting angry about foreigners being in a Chinese movie featuring the Great Wall,” shared Damon.
Tweaks, research, re-writes
Before embarking on the project, Zhang, 65, told the American team that in order for The Great Wall to be better than other Chinese-Hollywood movies, some changes needed to be made.
“I made them agree to a big budget (reportedly US$150mil/RM660mil) and pushed the filming start date one year later as I needed to make amendments to the Chinese fiction,” revealed Zhang.
If the movie was going to have Chinese mythological creatures, Zhang wanted to make sure that the story was as accurate as he could make it.Unfortunately, he did not realise how incredibly difficult that was going to be.
“Almost every day I would think about the script and throw in little details, bonding both the Eastern and Western cultures. It was a very difficult thing to do but you must make a product that is accurate, otherwise it would not be good,” he said.
Zhang’s attention to detail and ability to turn even the most mundane activity into a visual feast on screen were what made Damon, Dafoe, Pascal and Lau sign on to The Great Wall.
“I think all of us have seen his films and fallen in love with at least one of them,” said Dafoe, 61.
The 41-year-old Pascal added that working in China on a set with mostly Chinese folks was a challenging yet fun experience.
“We couldn’t really hang out with everyone after shoots because of the language barrier, but the work itself was great! We had translators but if we weren’t giving Zhang exactly what he wanted he would find ways to get it out of us,” shared Pascal.
Zhang thinks of himself as a strict director, and while the actors do agree that his work ethics is impeccable, he is still “nice”.
“Zhang is just a really nice guy and the way his mind works is amazing. Everyone on the set was kind, which made us feel not too much like outsiders even though we totally were,” Dafoe added.
For Lau, who previously worked with Zhang on House Of Flying Daggers, the decision to team up again was an easy one to make. “I trust him, he’s my friend. I trust his work and I know how he works. Plus, this character, a scholar, is something that I like to play nowadays because he doesn’t have to do much fighting. I don’t like doing fight scenes, not anymore!” revealed Lau, 55, who – in person – looks 10 years younger than his age.
Speaking of fight scenes, there are plenty offered in The Great Wall, but seeing as it is a Zhang Yimou film, you can bet that they would be more visually captivating than gory.
Like in many of his previous work, Zhang injects bright, vivid colours into the film by way of The Nameless Order. Each colour represents a specific troop; blue, for example, is worn by the army’s all-female Crane Corps or aerial warriors who bungee jump from atop the Wall’s towers to spear incoming monsters.
“I love using colours in my films. I think it is because when I was growing up, they left impressions on me so I am always trying to use them in different ways in my work. Also, I believe colours create a larger effect for the film,” Zhang explained.
The Great Wall was released in China on Dec 15 and will open today in other parts of Asia. In the US, the film only opens on Feb 17. Zhang said that he is not too worried about box-office takings. He does, however, think that it could have been a better film.
“From my first movie, I am never completely satisfied with my work. In whatever I do, if you asked me if I was happy with my work, I will always say that it can be better, that I can do better.
“Maybe it is because of this attitude that I am able to stay in this field for so long; I am forever seeking to make that perfect movie. Still, I think, till the day I pass away this might never come,” Zhang concluded.